writing and storytelling, work in translation and the legacy of Hans Christian Andersen.
Elizabeth Laird is a children’s writer who has lived all over the world, collecting folk stories and fables as she travels. She is nominated for the 2016 Hans Christian Andersen Award. Daniel Hahn is a writer and translator who recently published The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature.
Writing from Experience
The settings in Laird’s books reflect the many places she has lived, written and taught, including Lebanon, Ethiopia, Palestine and Pakistan. Oftentimes these settings provide the backdrop for her protagonist’s challenge, as the character takes control over their own actions when they cannot control what is going on around them. Many of Laird’s stories come from conversations she’s had with children on her travels. For instance, she met with boys in Pakistan who were sold in to trafficking to become jockeys, which she writes about in Lost Riders. It is important, says Laird, that children are given the chance to test themselves in the pages of a book, asking “what would I do in that situation?” Laird notes that “nobody wants a book where the child stays at home and does what mummy and daddy say!”
Laird states that children are bombarded with escapist literature, but insists that they actually want to engage with the big questions in life, which can be approached through universal themes in children’s books. These themes, she says, are “love, hope, forgiveness, endurance, courage, freedom and friendship”. Laird thinks that these are fundamental to writing and that you have to find a story that encompasses them. She says that these themes are important hallmarks that are recognised across cultures, meaning that children the world over can take meaning from, and relate to, these stories, if when they are far removed from the child’s day-to-day life.
The Storytelling Tradition
Laird draws parallels between the storytelling traditions of the different countries she’s visited. She recalls asking to hear a folktale from locals in Ethiopia and being told Hansel and Gretel, except the children were sent out in to the desert, using stones to mark their trail not breadcrumbs in the forest.
The stories may have different details and names, but the principles and meanings are the same. So how do we know which stories and books will survive as Andersen’s tales have? Hahn answers that you can never really know but, “some stories endure, some fall away or some become rich compost for other stories.”